A bit of 3D history.

These last two weeks professor Davidson and I have been trying to schedule a time to meet about the Traffic Light Arduino. We have both been pretty busy though, so it still hasn’t happened. Right now I have a Java programing midterm in a hour…

So, in the meantime I will post an essay I wrote for my Fundamentals of Human Centered Design and Engineering class. This essay is a brief overview of the history of 3D printing, with an enphisis on it’s social implications. Please note that this essay is based on only one week of research.

A Political History of Three-Dimensional Printing

A Historical Analysis of Three-Dimensional Printing using Social Construction of Technology methods.

Rose Beede 2/6/13

University of Washington, Human Centered Design and Engineering, Undergraduate Student

Three-dimensional printing methods have been evolving for many years now. What started as an exploration of manufacturing processes within the professional manufacturing industry has grown to encompass many artifacts and social groups. This essay will explore the history of three-dimensional printing using the Social Construction Of Technology (SCOT) philosophy. SCOT philosophy views the development of technology not as a fixed progression from one development to another; rather developments are implemented by the present social politics.

The technology of rapid prototyping, of which 3D Printing is a subset, began with laws in the 1980s aimed at making manufacturing processes more environmentally friendly [1]. Effort to reinvent the manufacturing process led to the invention of Steriolithography by Charles Hull.

Steriolithography works by using a laser to harden a viscous liquid material, one layer at a time. As the object is being created, it rests on a metal tray that is slowly lowered into the vat of liquid as each layer of the object is hardened. Often supports are needed for the object as it is being created. After the laser hardens the object, it is taken out of the vat and the supporting material is removed. Then it is cured in an ultraviolet oven [2]. The basic process of Steriolithography is straightforward to understand, the politics that affected it can be harder to understand.

In 1986, Hull had patented his ideas, and began to commercialize Steriolithography when he founding 3D Systems Corporation. Steriolithography, although developed as part of the process of searching for manufacturing methods, was used more often for prototyping than actual manufacturing. Steriolithography was able to meet the needs of the industry professional social group for faster business that used fewer recourses. The SLA series of Steriolithography machines were the first printers to be marketed to manufacturing industry professionals. The non-industry public remained fairly unaware of Steriolithography however, most likely because of very high entrance cost. Only medium to large companies could afford a Steriolithography machine.

Building upon the work of Charles Hull, Scott Crump invented Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) in 1988. FDM is true 3D printing. In the FDM process, a hard plastic filament is fed to an extruder head where it is softened and laid down in thin layers to create the desired part. A second material used for supporting the part during the build process is also extruded in layers. Starting on the build platform, the part is built up, layer by layer. When this process is complete, the support structure can be removed from the finished part [3].

In 1989 Crump, following much the same path as Hull, founded Stratasys Corporation and began marketing FDM printers. In some ways, FDM technology met the needs of the industry professional social group more effectively than Steriolithography technology. FDM does not require curing afterwards, and is simpler to maintain. Also, FDM printing was also used more for prototyping than for manufacturing. However it can be assumed that corporations that had just recently invested in Steriolithography technology would be reluctant to switch so quickly to another technology with a high entrance cost. Nevertheless, FDM printers were able to gain a foothold in the growing rapid prototyping market. Because of the high entrance cost, industry professionals remained the only social groups directly associated with 3D printing technology.

Another method of 3D printing, Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), was also patented in 1989.  In the SLS process, a laser fuses together a powered material in layers. A roller levels out the powder in thin layers for the laser to fuse. The layers are then built up to create the final part.  Once the part has been built, the excess powder can be brushed off. A finishing varnish can be applied to add durability, but is not necessary [4].

SLS printing followed much the same social path as FDM printing. It was also faster, easier to maintain, and could utilize a wider range of materials than Steriolithography. This is possibly because they both evolved within the same timeframe. Within the manufacturing industry professional social group, SLS, FDM, and Steriolithography methods are all still used today.

Then in 1993, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology took elements from both FDM and SLS technology, and created a process called 3D Printing. [5] Although this was the first time the term “3D Printing” was used to describe rapid prototyping using a layering method, 3D Printing has since become an industry generic term that loosely encompasses 3D Printing, FDM and SLS methods. This can be slightly confusing, so in this paper the specific process developed by MIT will be referred to as 3DP. In the 3DP process, a powder is also used, similar to SLS. However a liquid binding is material is used to fuse together thin layers of powder instead of a laser. A printer head lays down the binding material, similar to FDM printing. Because it uses liquid binding material, 3DP is very similar to traditional inkjet two-dimensional printing [5].

The 3DP system accepts a far wider range of materials than previous printers. In fact, almost any material can be used, so long as it is ground into a powder. This opened up many different material possibilities, including biodegradable materials Because of this characteristic the environmentalist social group began to be more directly involved with 3D printing. In fact, this may have been one of the key issues driving the development of 3DP.

The academic social group also gained power with the development of 3DP. As of 2000, MIT had only licensed 3DP technology to six companies: ExtrudeHone, Soligen, Specific Surface Corporation, TDK Corporation, Terics, and Z Corporation. [5]. By keeping a tight hold on 3DP technology, MIT positioned themselves as a powerful political group in the pool of 3D printing social groups.

3D printing technology took a new turn in 2006 with the RepRap project. The RepRap series of FDM printers were first developed at the University of Bath in England. The idea was to create a 3D printer that could replicate itself by printing it’s own parts [6]. As of 2010, the RepRap could replicate about 50% of itself. [7] There have been several models, starting with the RepRap “Darwin” in 2006, followed by the “Mendel”.

It can be inferred that the RepRap printer was very consciously designed with respect to its social implications. The fact that RepRap is self-replicating could potentially empower social groups with little to no infrastructure [7]. It could bring the power of manufacturing to individuals in poorer countries. For this reason, RepRap added social justice workers to the pool of political groups associated with 3D printing. Also, unlike other printers, the RepRap is open source, making it available to less economically powerful social groups such as hobbyists. However, RepRap printers excluded non-technical social groups, since they require some technical knowledge to assemble.

Very recently, the Makerbot series of FDM printers has emerged. This is the first printer designed with a focus on non-technical social groups. Makerbot’s latest printer, “Replicator 2” comes fully assembled. Also, Makerbot is associated with Thingaverse, a web site where freelance designers and hobbyists can create designs that 3D printer owners can download and print without having to do any design work [8]. This further enables non-technical social groups. Makerbot’s technology does exclude lower income social groups however, as a Makerbot printer costs around $2,800 [8].

3D printing technology is quickly becoming a part of more and more social groups. It has been speculated that 3D printing will soon have widespread use in homes and offices. The targeted social groups for 3D printing have become less and less technology oriented. For example, in the last month, 3D Systems also released a printer designed for in home use. Not only that, the focus on developing countries could soon lead to the use of 3D printing all over the world.


[1]           Digital Forming. 3D Printing [Online]. Available: http://www.digitalforming.com/3d-printing.html

[2]           M. Brain. How Steriolithography Works [Online]. Available: http://computer.howstuffworks.com/stereolith2.htm

[3]           J. Hiemenz, Stratasys, Inc. (2011). 3D Printing with FDM: How it Works [Online]. Available: http://www.stratasys.com/~/Media/Main/Files/White%20Papers/SSYS-WP-3DP-HowItWorks-09-11.aspx

[4]           RPWORLD.NET. (2004 – 2011). SLS (Selective Laser Sintering) [Online]. Available: http://rpworld.net/cms/index.php/additive-manufacturing/rp-rapid-prototyping/sls-selective-laser-sintering.html

[5]           J. B. Kaczynski (June 28, 2000). What is the 3DPtm Process? [Online]. Available: http://web.mit.edu/tdp/www/whatis3dp.html

[6]           3-dinnovations.com. (March 22, 2012). Hit Rewind…The History of 3D   Printing [Online]. Available: http://www.3d-innovations.com/blog/?p=373

[7]           J. Davis-Coates. (January 16, 2010). RepRap Open Source 3D Printer [Online Video]. Available: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FUB1WgiAFHg

[8]           R. Brown, CNET. (January 8, 2013) MakerBot Replicator 2X 3D printer gets the spotlight [Online]. Available: http://reviews.cnet.com/3d-printers/makerbot-replicator-2x/4505-33809_7-35567325.html

[9]           DE Editors. (January 11, 2013). 3D Systems Releases CubeX 3D Printer [Online]. Available: http://www.deskeng.com/articles/aabhwc.htm


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